Telling people to eat less has never been the answer

People gained weight during the pandemic. Photo credit: Nicoleta Ionescu / Shutterstock

We ate a lot more during the pandemic. The latest figures from Public Health England suggest that more than 40% of UK adults gained an average of 3 kg during the pandemic. The reasons for the increase in body weight seem obvious at first glance. We tended to exercise less during lengthy blackouts, with emotional eating and gym closings fueling the trend.

A look at PHE’s Better Health campaign launched this summer shows a focus on the “energy balance equation”. This is the idea that obesity accumulates when food intake, commonly measured in calories, exceeds the body’s energy expenditure. And while the health effects of obesity are now well documented, the link between COVID-19 mortality and a body mass index above 30 undoubtedly lends a sense of urgency to finally addressing growing waists in the UK.

However, one look at the history of dieting and health campaigns should remind us that the reality of weight gain is more complex than “calories in versus calories out”. This begs the question of whether a focus on conventional diets aimed at reducing energy levels by counting calories alone can really adequately address the issue of obesity gained during the pandemic.

As my research on slimming behavior after 1945 shows, weight loss diets first gained popularity in the UK when rationing gave way to a burgeoning consumer culture and affluence in the 1950s and 60s. Common weight loss diets initially focused more on reducing carbohydrate consumption. But by the late 1960s, low-fat approaches and calorie counting became much more common.

At the same time, scientists were increasingly concerned with the relationship between body weight and heart disease. Research emerged that documented the harmful effects of obesity, such as the Framingham Heart Study or the Build and Blood Pressure Study. And although the rates were still comparatively low, concerns were so great in the late 1960s that they led to the establishment of the Obesity Association in 1967.

Despite the increased focus on these health problems and diets, people around the world – especially in western countries – have been putting on weight since the 1960s. The world obesity rate is now almost three times what it was in 1975. Rates in the United Kingdom doubled between 1980 and 1991 and today the country has the third highest obesity rate in Europe.

You might assume that in line with these changes, there has also been an increase in the amount of calories people in the UK consumed. Between 1950 and 2000, the National Food Survey monitored household diets in Great Britain. Its seemingly paradoxical data shows that calorie expenditure actually decreased in the post-war years, even as obesity rates increased.

This apparent contradiction is related to the increase in fat in the national diet from the mid-1960s. But parallel to a change in diet, the British became more sedentary than ever, for example car ownership and motorized travel increased sharply since the early 1950s. It shows that weight loss is more than just trying to cut your calories and that we need to consider the bigger picture of what is going on in people’s lives.

The same problem was highlighted during the pandemic. For example, the Food Standards Agency’s report on Food in a Pandemic emphasizes that during the initial lockdown, a higher proportion of the local population will shop, consume homemade meals and eat healthier foods. The report found that there was a likely link to the increase in time available for food activities due to home work assignments and vacation arrangements. And yet, on average, many people gained weight anyway.

The reality is that the extra time afforded by being able to work at home during lockdown can mostly be linked to higher earners. Food insecurity, as well as the lack of time they spend at home, would have prevented many on lower incomes from choosing similarly healthy foods.

With obesity on the rise, focusing on dieting has clearly proven pointless for the past 70 years. From not eating bread or potatoes to consuming just 500 calories a day, there were hundreds of diets in the 20th century that promised but didn’t deliver. But today, public health campaigns still seem to focus on the simple message of getting people to eat fewer calories.

Very little, if any, progress has been made since obesity was recognized as a public health priority in 1998. Obesity is not a conscious lifestyle, and the continued focus on individualized solutions and self-regulation fails to recognize the health inequalities that the pandemic has exposed and exacerbated. Ideally, the issue of weight gain during the pandemic should cause us to rethink such conventional methods of weight loss and focus more on root causes and integrated approaches.

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citation: Lockdown Weight Gain: Telling People To Eat Less Has Never Been The Answer (2021 August 3), accessed August 3, 2021 from https://medicalxpress.com/news/2021-08- lockdown-weight-gain-people.html

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